Bringing Brain Science Research to the General Public

Posted in GUMC Stories

APRIL 1, 2016–Neuroscience experts spoke about language acquisition, traumatic brain injury and the way the brain makes connections at the second annual Georgetown University Free Neuroscience Public Lecture on March 16 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) headquarters.

While last year’s lecture only featured speakers from Georgetown, this year’s event also included speakers from George Mason University and Gallaudet University, a strategic decision by organizer Edith Brignoni-Pérez, a PhD candidate in Georgetown’s Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience (IPN).

“The idea is to start connecting more and more all the great research that is going on, not only at Georgetown University, but in the whole D.C. area, which has the great advantage of having excellent universities and research institutions all around the area,” Brignoni-Pérez said. “We all can strengthen efforts in advancing our neuroscience research as well as brain-research education to non-scientific communities.”

Distinguishing Language and Speech in the Brain

American sign language (ASL) interpreters were another new addition for the 2016 lecture, complementing a talk about language acquisition by Laura-Ann Petitto, EdD, science director of the Science of Learning Center and professor of psychology at Gallaudet University.

As an early-career researcher, Petitto found that most scientists believed that language skills were directly connected to one’s ability to speak. Yet when she started researching how hearing children acquire spoken language compared to the way that deaf children learn sign language, Petitto found that they achieved developmental milestones on the same timeline, regardless of the way the children communicated.

Those findings led Petitto to conduct PET scans on profoundly deaf people while they were shown images of sign language gestures that represent small phonetic sounds. The scans showed activation in a part of the brain that researchers thought was dedicated to auditory processing.

“This is brain tissue in the deaf that’s getting no input,” Petitto said. “So why didn’t the tissue just shrivel up and die? It’s because we made a mistake. The tissue is not set for sound. It’s set for highly specific, rhythmic underlying patterns in human language. So what’s special about us is not the sound detection, but the pattern detection mechanisms that we have.”

Making Connections in the Brain

While event organizers sought to connect neuroscience researchers with members of the general public, the researchers explained how connections are made in the brain itself. Since the human brain has nearly one hundred billion neurons and each makes upwards of 10,000 contacts — or synapses — each brain has about one thousand trillion synaptic contacts, according to Giorgio Ascoli, PhD, George Mason University professor of molecular neuroscience.

“That’s in a single human brain,” Ascoli said. “These connections represent the entire repertoire of one’s memories, dreams, intentions, skills, habits and emotions, but at the same time they also shape what each individual can learn from experience.”

The number of synaptic connections is reduced following a single concussion, according to Mark Burns, PhD, associate professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University. However, this loss is temporary and the majority of people make a full recovery within 7-10 days.

Increased media attention to the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has made many individuals feel more concerned about the risks of head injuries, but the incidence of CTE among people who do not play high contact sports is rare, Burns said.

“I do think that concussion education and awareness are hugely important, and we’re already seeing the benefits of that,” he said. “But one of the downfalls of that is that now people are afraid to let their children go play sports. And this is at a time when we’re suffering from massive amounts of obesity.”

The lecture, organized and sponsored by the Georgetown University Medical Center Graduate Student Organization with support from the AAAS Neuropolicy Affinity Group and the Society for Neuroscience D.C. Chapter, was part of Brain Awareness Week, an international campaign to promote public awareness of brain research.

Kat Zambon
GUMC Communications